George R.R. Martin and friends are working on the railroad

A Santa Fe Southern Railway engine in Lamy. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The rumors have been swirling around the railroad depot in Lamy since the turn of the year. On Friday, it became official: Novelist and screenwriter George R.R. Martin, Violet Crown Cinema owner Bill Banowsky and arts philanthropist Catherine Oppenheimer now own the Santa Fe Southern Railway Inc.

The trio, who met through their various interests in the Santa Fe Railyard, are aiming to restore excursion trips on the 18-mile spur between Santa Fe and Lamy by 2022.

In separate interviews with Journal North, the partners in Santa Fe and Lamy Railroad Partners LLC – the entity they created to acquire Santa Fe Southern – attributed their deal to acquire the insolvent railroad, which began to take form in 2019, to a pitcher of margaritas.

Bill Banowsky

One evening about a year-and-a-half ago, the three partners were having dinner at Banowsky’s house and, after the pitcher of margaritas, the host broached the idea of buying the Santa Fe Southern Railway. His guests agreed to the plan.

Martin said, “It was like we were in an old Mickey Rooney movie. Hey, kids, let’s put on a show.”

He said his real motivation for being part of the acquisition group is so he can stand in the engine car and blow the whistle. “Even though I’m an old guy, I’m a 13-year-old inside,” said the screenwriter of the wildly successful HBO Series “Game of Thrones.”

Catherine Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer said being neighbors in the Santa Fe Railyard helped bring the three partners together. She is co-founder and board chair of the New Mexico School for the Arts, which moved to the site of the former Sanbusco shopping mall in September 2019. NMSA is catty-corner to Martin’s Jean Cocteau Cinema and Beastly Books, and down the street from Banowsky’s Violet Crown.

“There’s nothing like proximity,” Oppenheimer said.

“Both Bill and George have been incredibly generous in allowing the school to hold events in their spaces,” she added. “George has offered our students hands-on opportunities to usher and participate in creative writing workshops. The kids did a live radio show that they performed at the Cocteau in the fall.”

The spur between Santa Fe and Lamy dates to the late 19th century when the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad was extending its line from Kansas to California. Despite its name, the railroad decided to bypass Santa Fe because of engineering challenges due to elevation.

To make sure the state capital didn’t miss out on the action generated by the railroad stop in Lamy (then known as Galisteo Junction), Santa Fe’s city fathers, including Archbishop of Santa Fe Jean-Baptiste Lamy, worked together to create public support and raise financing to build the spur from Santa Fe to the town that was later renamed in honor of the archbishop.

Amtrak’s westbound Southwest chief pulls into the Lamy train station. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Today, Lamy is still the local stop that the Amtrak Southwest Chief makes on its way between Chicago and Los Angeles. However, passenger service on the Santa Fe Southern has been sporadic for the past few years, with the exception of private excursions. Although the railroad was technically insolvent, its creditors avoided pushing it into bankruptcy.

Putting together the deal to buy Santa Fe Southern was a painstaking process, Banowsky explained. First up was obtaining an option to purchase a mortgage from Suzanne and Baylor Chapman on real estate including the Lamy train depot and railyard. Those talks began in June 2019 and led to the option in August of that year.

“This mortgage had been in default for many years because the railroad was unable to pay the Chapman sisters. They agreed to sell us a mortgage at a price that was fair. If we couldn’t make that deal, there was no reason to go forward,” Banowsky said.

Another important piece of the puzzle fell into place in February, when Letitia Grant agreed to sell the trio 48% of the shares of the railroad that she inherited from her husband. Grant’s late husband was also a creditor. His debt was secured by the rolling stock of the railroad, which includes 10 train cars and two locomotives. The group purchased this debt, as well.

The final transaction that made the deal possible, Banowsky said, was the acquisition of 33% of Santa Fe Southern shares from Karl Ziebarth, who has been keeping the railroad alive. Following that purchase and other smaller transactions, Banowsky, Martin and Oppenheimer now own 89% of the shares.

Amtrak currently leases the Lamy train depot from Santa Fe Southern. That lease is expiring soon, which is a reason the train trio wanted to take control of the company at this time.

Chili Line Brewery had been occupying a baggage room in the depot that had been restored by members of the community under the supervision of Johnny Jednak and Cindy Lu. It was forced to leave earlier this year because of pressure from Amtrak, Banowsky said.

He said Santa Fe Southern’s new owners want to see Amtrak remain as a tenant, but to revive the brew pub that was popular with local residents. “I think it’s possible to do both,” he said.

While Martin and Oppenheimer envision immersive experiential train experiences along the lines of Meow Wolf, which Martin helped found, Banowsky is focused on restoring the bridges and track between Santa Fe and Lamy.

“The next step is how we’re going to pull together the capital to bring maintenance up to date,” he said. “Then, we’ll restore the cars.”

George R.R. Martin

Martin, whose nonprofit Stagecoach Foundation is dedicated to expanding film and TV production in New Mexico, sees the possibility of building a Wild West sound stage and backlot in Lamy, and using the train in film productions. “It was already featured in ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ” he said.

“There are a lot of opportunities for a new tourist attraction. COVID has thrown a monkey wrench into our plan. We had hoped to get things up and running in 2021, but now it won’t be until 2022,” Martin said.

In terms of tourist experiences, Oppenheimer sees excursions at Halloween (“George’s favorite holiday”) and Christmas (think taking “The Polar Express” to a twinkling holiday village in Lamy), as well as stargazing expeditions featuring astronomers and astrologers.

For his part, Martin’s thinking about trips where actors dressed as bandits hold up the train, escape rooms on the rails and even a murder mystery event called “Murder on the Lamy Express.”

“We don’t want this to be a shabby railroad on its last legs,” Martin said. “We want this to be a real jewel.”

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